Posted Apr 19 2012 11:18AM
There is a hole in the NBA's roster of annual awards, one that I'm happy to fill right here, right now.
While it's true that there isn't specific recognition given to the league's top offensive player each season -- y'know, to balance the Defensive Player of the Year award -- the game's most potent scorers or assists men tend to get their due in the Most Valuable Player balloting. And though there could, in theory, be a trophy handed out to the Sophomore of the Year, the general understanding is that, once you're no longer eligible for the Rookie of the Year, you're supposed to go after the big-boy honors, never mind your matriculating class.
No, the hole in the slate of NBA awards has to do with a role that is vital to any team that hopes to contend for a championship: the sidekick.
Let's call it the 2MVP, as in the Second-Most Valuable Player. Then, just as the hardware presented to the league MVP each spring has a name, we'll dub this one the Scottie Pippen Award in acknowledgement of one of the greatest No. 2's in NBA history. (If the league were naming its trophies these days, the MVP likely would be known as the Michael Jordan rather than the Maurice Podoloff, right? Not because Jordan won the most but because he is widely hailed as the greatest overall player. Well, that would make a Pippen trophy a natural companion.)
The piece itself, naturally, would be a big, bronze second banana.
This wouldn't be another slip down that slippery Little League-ish slope of "everyone gets a trophy!" The sidekick is a time-tested and indispensible role in the NBA, without which no superstar's quest for championship validation will be complete. Who is the last NBA legend to win a ring without an All-Star or even Hall of Fame-worthy teammate? These days, the best teams often have three or more stars, which can blur the lines between the MVP, the 2MVP, even the 3MVP -- think San Antonio or Boston (4MVP?) -- but leaves no doubt that the talent cupboard is full.
Besides, this is a league that annually honors some team's sixth-best player. You telling me there's no room, time or budget to honor somebody's second-best?
Look, we all know that the Sixth Man of the Year Award wasn't created just to applaud a fellow who, even though he's good enough to start for most clubs, is team-oriented and selfless enough to accept and thrive off the bench. It's a trophy presented as balm, to soothe some ego wounds and help coaches sell the old notion that "it's not about who starts, it's about who finishes." One of the most challenging things about the Sixth Man role -- especially for younger players -- is accepting it while still in search of that first big contract. That's what makes James Harden's work in Oklahoma City all the more impressive.
But accepting a sidekick role isn't easy, either. Ask Russell Westbrook or, heck, just watch Russell Westbrook on many nights. Few people grow up wanting to be Robin to someone else's Batman. Or for that matter, Ed to Johnny, Trapper to Hawkeye, Dr. Watson to Sherlock. But the guys who handle it well can elevate their teams to something special and drive them toward the Finals when an opponents' game plan in a best-of-seven takes away chunks of their superstar's game.
So here is one man's theoretical ballot of 2MVP candidates. The actual MVP ballot only goes five deep but we're including a few more spots for conversation's sake. In descending order:
10. Marcin Gortat, Phoenix Suns: Point guard Steve Nash drives the Suns but Gortat has a shot at becoming only the eighth guy in franchise history to average a double-double. He'd probably be the 2MVP in Orlando, too, had he not been traded.
9. David West, Indiana Pacers: Danny Granger has tightened his grasp on Indiana's MVP -- check out his work in this recent 10-of-11 run -- and Roy Hibbert was on the East All-Star squad. But West was the acquisition that put some starch in the Pacers' shorts and boosted the squad's confidence.
8. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs: Seems odd to have the Big Fundamental on a 2MVP list rather than the real McCoy. And the Spurs are one of those teams that blur the lines; ask "Who's most valuable?" and you're likely to hear, "Which night?" Boston has four guys, Atlanta has to flip a coin between Josh Smith and Joe Johnson, and so on. But Tony Parker is likely to get the most real MVP votes this season, which makes Duncan a natural here in his not-so-twilight. No offense to Manu Ginobili, of course.
7. Blake Griffin, L.A. Clippers: Chris Paul is the straw that stirs the Clippers' drink but Griffin is one of only two players (Dwight Howard is the other) averaging at least 20.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and shooting 54 percent or better. Maybe he can get the OOP award this season, for finishing all of Paul's alleys.
6. Tyson Chandler, N.Y. Knicks: Amar'e Stoudemire would have been the early choice. Jeremy Lin might have been a possibility in midseason, though he was on track to get some legit MVP votes. But now it's clear that Chandler is the Knicks' second-most important performer, his defense and rebounding anchoring a team that had little inclination toward either.
5. Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves: It's true that Rubio has been out since March 9 and isn't coming back. But consider this as evidence of his value, maybe even rivaling double-double machine Kevin Love: With Rubio available, the Timberwolves were 21-20 and chasing a playoff spot in the West. Since he went down, they are 4-18. In fact, that 4-18 (.182) is worse, in spite of Rick Adelman's talents, than Kurt Rambis' mark (32-132, .195) coaching Minnesota for two years while it was waiting for the Spanish point guard to come over.
4. Andrew Bynum, L.A. Lakers: Guy's a monster. Kobe's forever the most valuable Laker but Bynum, in spite of his maturity and consistency issues, has taken over the 2MVP spot held by Pau Gasol until this season. Better be careful, though: he's won two Western Conference player of the week awards, the stuff normally reserved for the main MVPs.
3. Luol Deng, Chicago Bulls: Take away Derrick Rose, the league's reigning MVP, and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau turns to C.J. Watson, John Lucas and even D-League refugee Mike James and feels OK about it. But take away Deng, who has been playing with a torn ligament in his left wrist before missing time with bruised ribs this week, and Thibodeau gets edgy. Deng, an All-Star in February, is a do-everything guy, Chicago's best defender and leads the NBA in minutes per game .
2. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat: The pecking order among Miami's stars was obvious last season, with Chris Bosh at No. 3 from the moment he arrived. But there has been separation this season at the top, with Wade more clearly the Heat's No. 2 to LeBron James' No. 1. Stats, availability, you name it, James has taken over in what was a more equal partnership in 2010-11. Wade has missed 14 games and Miami has gone 13-1 on those nights. Then again, he has topped 30 points eight times and his 26.4 PER trails only James and Paul league-wide.
1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder: Westbrook and Kevin Durant are not exactly Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside for the Thunder. More like Mr. End-to-End and Mr. Everywhere. But they provide the same sort of "Oh no, where's it coming from next!" headaches for OKC foes. They became the only teammates in NBA history to each score 40 points in the same game on two separate occasions in the same season (vs. Denver in February, vs. Minnesota in March). Westbrook might exhibit a little more sibling rivalry than Pippen did toward Jordan -- a little -- but the biggest snag to Westbrook's case as NBA 2MVP is the likelihood that, if he were to wind up playing elsewhere, Harden has the skills package and demeanor to bump from the league's Sixth Man to the Thunder's second man.
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